Movies

Friday A/V Club: Philip Marlowe in the French Revolution

Anthony Mann's gloriously weird movie The Black Book.

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History!

Today is the 225th anniversary of the Tennis Court Oath, a key moment in the early stages of the French Revolution. To mark the occasion, watch one of the strangest movies ever made about the revolutionary period: Anthony Mann's The Black Book, a.k.a. Reign of Terror.

This came out in 1949, a time when Mann mostly worked in the film noir genre. The first time I sat down to watch it, many years ago, I wondered how Mann would adjust to making a period picture. I quickly got my answer: He treated it like it was just another noir. From the beginning this looks like an 18th-century Big Sleep, and after a few minutes it starts to sound like one too. By the time Robespierre shouts "Don't call me Max!" at 6:46, you know you're seeing something wonderfully weird.

The history is completely garbled, of course, but in a picture like this that only adds to the charm. Enjoy:

Bonus links: This isn't the only good French Revolution film floating around on the Internet. Marat/Sade is on YouTube, while Hulu Plus has Andrzej Wajda's 1983 picture Danton, with its deliberate echoes of the repression then ongoing in Poland. If you're looking for something lighter, you can watch Scaramouche or Start the Revolution Without Me. And then there's my favorite D.W. Griffith flick, the overlong but enjoyably insane Orphans of the Storm. As I wrote elsewhere:

If you'd like to peer directly into an artist's anxious psyche, you need only watch the two most powerful scenes in Orphans of the Storm. One is a decadent aristocratic bacchanal; the other is a chaotic riot. One is filled with resentment of the rich; the other, fear of the poor. It's like writing hysteria with Lightning.

For past installments of the Friday A/V Club, go here.

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